US President Biden hosts Quad leaders at their first in-person summit, left to right, then-Japanese prime minster Suga Yoshihide, Indian PM Narendra Modi and Australian PM Scott Morrison in the White House on September 24, 2021, amid shared concerns about China's growing power and behavior. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

The promotion of the Quad, the birth of the AUKUS security pact, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan signal US strategic resolve to focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Such moves can be expected to heighten frictions with its great-power rival, China, cause unease within Southeast Asia, and even fray ties with Europe. Either Washington underrated such costs or is determined to bear them in its campaign to counter Beijing’s growing capacity and influence in this vital region.

The first in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders’ summit held in Washington last week was a milestone in the club’s history. It came just six months after the first virtual leaders’ meeting of the four member countries. Such rapid progress shows how the grouping figures in America’s overall game plan in the region. The Quad will be to the Indo-Pacific what NATO was for Europe.

But as China’s challenge is less ideological and more comprehensive than the Soviet Union’s was, the Quad too has to evolve and go beyond security. This was reflected in the Quad leaders’ joint statement, which had more meat than the March communiqué. It also covered greater ground, from health to the environment, infrastructure, technology, diplomacy, security, and even education and people-to-people ties. 

The US is getting that it is one thing to push back against China in the maritime domain, and it is another to compete in the provision of public goods. By leveraging its alliances and partnerships, it can pool resources to meet China’s vaccine diplomacy or its Belt and Road infrastructure binge.

Capacitating Quad members or securing access to proximate bases will also hasten response time to contingencies critical given the multitude of flashpoints in the region. Hence whatever form it takes, the Quad will be central to Washington’s grand strategy toward the region. And like its European counterpart, it too envisages expansion, as Quad-Plus dialogues suggest. 

So far, attempts by the US and China to reach some form of modus vivendi have been fruitless. The Alaska and Tianjin summits last March and July respectively laid this bare. As such, both sides are digging in. Even the second telephone conversation between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping did little to alleviate the situation. Less than a week after the call, AUKUS was unveiled. 

That said, both sides are letting off some steam. As the Quad leaders gathered in Washington, an agreement was reached to facilitate the return of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to China, after which Beijing released Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. This ended close to three years of politically charged wrangling that inadvertently put US neighbor and ally Canada on the spot. 

“Minilaterals” can serve as a workaround to the vicissitudes of consensus-based organizations and can complement one another. For instance, both the Quad and the AUKUS underscore the need to foster cooperation in the area of critical and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing where China is making much headway.

Given the difficulties of reaching a common stand on divisive issues, especially among countries of varying levels of development, political persuasions, and security outlooks, a core group or coalition of “like-minded” states can help coax and nudge regional blocs, if not certain individual member states, to act.

Despite statements to the contrary, doubling down on the Quad may indicate frustration over the inability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the European Union to come up with a cohesive strategy to deal with China. But this also cuts both ways. 

Southeast Asian countries, for instance, worry that minilaterals may subvert ASEAN centrality, diminish their agency or force them to pick sides in the brewing great-power contest.

The rift created by the announcement of AUKUS is instructive. While the Philippines formally welcomed it as a contribution to maintaining the balance of power in the region given China’s rise, Indonesia and Malaysia worried about a possible escalation of tensions. Others kept mum, and it is hard to guess their positions.

ASEAN did issue its own outlook document on the Indo-Pacific in 2019, but the cleavage exposed by AUKUS shows regional apprehension about an overt security pact, as it may raise the temperature in an already searing geopolitical theater. Even neighboring New Zealand said that Australian nuclear-powered submarines would be unwelcome in its waters. 

Few countries in the region have the means to detect, let alone deter, the movements of submarines that may be crisscrossing their waters. Hence Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines may fuel aspirations by some regional countries to develop similar undersea platforms. This would trigger an arms race and runs a proliferation risk that might stir regional instability.

Despite disputes over the South China Sea, Malaysia’s plan to consult China reveals undercurrents of disquiet over the new trilateral security arrangement. 

Finally, it remains to be seen how the Quad and AUKUS can accommodate a robust role for Europe in the Indo-Pacific region. France, the European country with the biggest stake in the region and the first to put forward an Indo-Pacific strategy, was deeply offended by the AUKUS deal. This development will have reverberations on trans-Atlantic ties, NATO cohesion, and EU-Australia trade talks, and may even create space for Chinese overtures.

The unprecedented recall of its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra, cancellation of a defense summit with London, and withdrawal from a trilateral ministerial dialogue with Canberra and Delhi show the depth of France’s dismay. After its bungled unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan, the last thing the US would want is to have another discord with its NATO allies. 

France’s hosting of a “Quad+1” naval drill in April off the Bay of Bengal during its third La Perouse exercises showed its interest and capacity to contribute to the club. The country is also a driving force in shaping Europe’s strategy toward the region. Getting blindsided was thus the last thing that France may have expected.

And if longtime allies with many shared affinities cannot even get their acts together, how can the Quad convince countries whose values and appreciation of regional geopolitics may not be wholly congruent with them?

As interests were hurt and emotions ran high, reviving trust and renewing momentum may take time. For now, containing the fallout is an urgent task. 

Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.